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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
C.L. Brown

Can UNC basketball get a lift from its bench? Not if they don’t play

North Carolina coach Hubert Davis made it a point of emphasis to develop a bench at the beginning of the season. With the regular season finale less than two weeks away, it appears to be an aspect of the Tar Heels’ season that has slipped away.

UNC ranks 358th out of 363 NCAA Division I teams in bench minutes, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Heels’ bench averages playing just 19% of available minutes per game.

The only team in the ACC that uses its bench less is Carolina’s opponent on Wednesday. Notre Dame ranked 361st in bench minutes at 16.7 percent. The Heels and Fighting Irish face off at 9 p.m. at the Joyce Center.

It’s one of two remaining road games the Heels can’t afford to lose as they cling to rapidly disintegrating NCAA tournament hopes.

Part of the NCAA tournament predicament Carolina is in is due the fact that it rarely gets a boost from the bench. But the dilemma has been Davis hasn’t used his bench consistently enough.

He’s taken more of an NBA approach to substituting. It’s highly situational, meaning it’s different every game and most players aren’t guaranteed to get in each game. It’s only gotten tighter as the postseason nears and Carolina, like many teams, appears to be constricting its rotation.

“I give everybody opportunities, that’s the type of coach I am,” Davis said. “I give guys opportunities to play and I don’t guarantee when, where, how, and the manner in which those opportunities come.”

Dontrez Styles seemed like he seized an opportunity last season when, as a freshman, he delivered a 3-pointer on the first possession of overtime that stabilized the Heels after giving up a 25-point lead to Baylor in regulation and led them to a second round win in the NCAA tournament. But Styles’ minutes as a sophomore look a lot like how much he played last season. Styles has appeared in just 12 games and averaged just 5.1 minutes per game.

Only junior forward Puff Johnson and freshman guard Seth Trimble have played in every game they’ve been available from off the bench.

Carolina’s bench seemed to make a breakthrough when it combined to score 20 or more points in three straight games starting with its first win against Notre Dame followed by a loss at Virginia and a win at Louisville.

Since then, their only game of more than 20 points came in the Heels’ 91-71 win against Clemson in which the starters were pulled with nearly five minutes left and the bench scoring totaled 25.

Freshman forward Jalen Washington has typified how the bench has been used.

Washington appeared to have his breakout game at Virginia, when senior forward Armando Bacot was injured in the opening two minutes. Washington scored a season-high 13 points and grabbed six rebounds in 27 minutes of play.

He followed that outing with six points and four rebounds in 19 minutes in a win at Louisville.

But since he sprained his right ankle during warmups and missed the Heels’ win against Boston College, Washington has been largely absent from the lineup. He’s played a total of just 33 minutes in the eight games since including a DNP (did not play) in Sunday’s loss at N.C. State.

Davis was still praising his abilities on Monday’s ACC coaches’ teleconference.

“He’s got an unbelievable stroke and an ability to be able to score in the post and he can shoot the ball from the outside,” Davis said. “I know that he hasn’t made a 3 this year, but he can stretch it beyond the arc. Defensively, I think he’s improving every day in terms of how to guard the 5 position and how to guard that hybrid 4 position where those guys are more perimeter based.”

Playing at Notre Dame is the closest thing to a home game for Washington, who is a native of Gary, Indiana. He, like other UNC bench players, will be hoping he’ll get to play in front of his family.

“Every time Jalen’s number has been called, he’s been ready,” Davis said. “And he’s done a terrific job out there on the floor.”

Game day details: UNC at Notre Dame

Teams: UNC Tar Heels at Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Where: Joyce Center, South Bend, Ind.

Date: Wednesday, Feb. 22

Time: 9 p.m.


Series history: The Tar Heels lead the overall series 28-9 including an 81-64 win over the Fighting Irish on Jan. 7 in Chapel Hill.

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